More newsrooms need ideological diversity

The news that journalism is confronting perhaps the most serious challenge to its credibility and relevance in our society is by no means fake.

A story published Sept. 12 by the Columbia Journalism Review reported on the judgment many people have rendered on the media. And for those of us who work in this industry, it wasn’t favorable. As the Society for Professional Journalists commemorates Ethics Week, it’s a good time to look at where we are.

“The results of a new Knight Foundation and Gallup poll released on Tuesday won’t come as a huge surprise to most journalists: Trust in the media is down. Again,” according to the CJR article. “A majority of those who were surveyed said they had lost trust in the media in recent years, and more than 30% of those who identified themselves as being on the conservative end of the spectrum said they had not only lost faith in the media, but they ‘expect that change to be permanent.’ According to a separate Gallup poll from earlier this year that tracked trust in major institutions, newspapers and television news were among the lowest, exceeded only by Congress.

“Is this decline in trust related to the repeated attacks on ‘the lying media’ by President Trump and his supporters, who like to describe the press as ‘the enemy of the people’?” the story continued. “That kind of analysis is beyond the scope of the latest Knight/Gallup study, but it has to be part of the backdrop. Respondents who said they paid the least amount of attention to the news were among those who mistrusted the media the most — is that because all they hear about the media is that it makes things up and is out to get the president?”

The partisan divide in how much people trust the news business does not surprise me. Through its own polling, the Pew Research Center found results similar to those presented in the Knight/Gallup survey.

“After a year of continued tension between President Donald Trump and the news media, the partisan divides in attitudes toward the news media that widened in the wake of the 2016 presidential election remain stark, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of survey data of 5,035 U.S. adults collected between Feb. 22 and March 4, 2018,” a Sept. 25 article posted on Pew’s website reported. “Specifically, strong divisions between Republicans and Democrats persist when it comes to support of the news media’s watchdog role, perceived fairness in political coverage, trust in information from both national and local news organizations, and ratings of how well the news media keep people informed. Americans are particularly divided politically on whether or not they think news media criticism keeps political leaders in line — the so-called ‘watchdog role’ of the news media. A vast majority of Democrats (82%) say in the survey conducted earlier this year that they support the news media’s watchdog role, believing that news media criticism keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done. On the other hand, the majority of Republicans (58%) think news media criticism gets in the way of political leaders doing their job.”

Political philosophy has long affected how people judge the news industry. Conservatives have a history of decrying the leftward drift of journalism — and their claim has become a self-fulfilled prophecy.

When people embrace ideology as an infallible mandate rather than a useful guideline for how to live, they grow less tolerant of their perceive rivals. This covers those from all political stripes.

Journalism demands a willingness to cover issues from a variety of perspectives. Inquisitive by nature, many reporters are adept at withholding judgment to tell a compelling story.

People whose ideology compels them to consider some of those perspectives repugnant are likely to look upon a lack of condemnation as at least tacit approval. Decades ago, they mistakenly came to see news objectivity as an act of embracing values they opposed.

So fewer conservatives decided to work for an enterprise they believed was corrupting society. This resulted in an influx of leftist activists who viewed journalism as a means of achieving their political goals.

I certainly don’t subscribe to the atrocious notion that members of the press are “enemies of the people.” Most journalists I know are smart, conscientious, fair and committed to the highest standards of our industry.

However, many newsrooms lack the ideological diversity to understand why they no longer retain the confidence of a growing number of people. As Americans continue to wage war against each other, wielding political sentiments, those of us in the news media often provide little else but ammunition.

Journalism has much to offer this nation and still serves a vital role in understanding the way chief aspects function. But as we mark Ethics Week, let’s not ignore how our weaknesses thwart social progress more than advance it.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times.